New York Stories

Firstly, many apologies for not updating this blog in a little while. I would

use the excuse that I was in Uruguay for most of the time, but that would be

disingenuous, since I had (a) laptop; (b) internet connection – albeit

dialup and spotty; and (c) lots of spare time while I was down there. It’s just

that the drive to blog was missing.

So instead, I decided to use that spare time to catch up on some reading. The

main course was The

Fortress of Solitude, the hugely ambitious new novel from Jonathan Lethem;

for dessert, I read The

Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts by Colson Whitehead. It’s an unoriginal

combination: not only are they both about New York City, but they even share

a publisher. And browsers

looking at the latter book on Amazon are encouraged to buy it in conjunction

with the former for a combined price of just $29.57.

My advice is to save your pennies, or at least the $13.97 that Amazon wants

for the Whitehead. It’s a small and slender volume, with very little substance.

If you want to get 90% of the benefit for free, wander into your local bookshop

and simply read the first real chapter (after the introduction), called The

Port Authority. It’s eight short pages long, and turns acute observation into

allusive, almost epigrammatic prose. Unfortunately, the book only goes downhill

from there, and since there’s no kind of narrative arc, there’s really no reason

to read on.

As the book continues, you’re bound to have an emperor-has-no-clothes moment

at some point. And once you’ve had it, there’s no going back. Would-be profundities

become silly at best, idiotic at worst, and reading any further loses all of

its appeal. Whitehead loves switching points of view, from first person to second

to third. But he also anthropomophises everything, from grains of sand to the

entire island of Manhattan, with less than happy results. Take the Coney Island

chapter, for instance:

Naturalized styrofoam bits recite pledges and names of presidents at the

slightest provocation.

The number of house keys lost this day will fall within the daily average

of lost house keys.

Their castles rise proudly from soggy plots of real estate, yet despite their

enthusiasm a very small percentage of these children actually go on to careers

in construction, it’s very strange.

The unseen infrastructure of waves. Events a thousand miles away find their

final meaning in these gentle little consequences begging at the shore.

Underneath the boardwalk is where they store failed mayoral candidates.

Never mind that you can’t fall within a daily average. None of these sentences

– and they’re a pretty representative sample of what you’ll find in the

rest of the book – means anything at all. They’re held together by nothing

but grammar: our minds desperately scramble to find some kind of meaning in

them, as though confronted by "colourless green ideas sleep furiously".

But the real response is much more simple: no, styrofoam bits don’t recite anything.

No, it isn’t strange that kids building sandcastles don’t all grow up to become

Donald Trump. No, underneath the boardwalk is not a store of failed mayoral


This book is Whitehead’s first since he won a MacArthur genius

award in 2002, and it seems that the praise might have gone to his –

or his editor’s – head. If he’s a genius, he doesn’t need to worry about

whether he’s making any sense, right? It’s the same thing that happened to Jeanette

Winterson after she got praised to the skies for Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

Bourgeois extravagances like plot and meaning got jettisoned, in favour of Art.

Well, excuse me, but I’d rather have comprehensibility.

So there’s no doubt that The Fortress of Solitude is much better suited for

someone like me. While there are no shortage of digressions and passages of

beautiful observational writing, there’s still a plot, something to keep you

turning the pages.

Once again, however, there are good reasons to stop turning at the end of the

first chapter. In this case, I hasten to add, the first chapter, called Underberg,

is 292 pages long, and makes for a wonderful and self-contained book in and

of itself. It tells the story of a kid called Dylan Ebdus growing up in Gowanus/Boerum

Hill in the 1970s, and is full to bursting with wonderful riffs on popular culture.

From the games children would play on the slate sidewalks of Dean Street, through

the birth of cultural phenomena from rap to graffiti to crack, Ebdus experiences

it all.

Every so often, this comes across as slightly boastful. Ebdus, who is clearly

modelled on Lethem himself, shows us his streed credentials at every opportunity:

all of us who didn’t grow up in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 70s

have to concede that Lethem has one over on us. And because Lethem seems to

feel that Ebdus has to personally witness just about every important cultural

development of the time, the character sometimes loses versimilitude. Is it

really possible that a kid whose father spends all his time holed up in the

attic, whose pothead mother abandoned him at an early age, whose friends rarely

turn up to school at all, whose teachers barely notice him, who displays no

signs of academic ambition, whose only reading material seems to be comic books

– is this kid really likely to make it into Stuyvesant High School by

dint of sheer natural intelligence and/or whiteness?

It is at Stuyvesant, we assume, that Ebdus learns how to write, and once he

graduates, the third-person first chapter ends and we move into the first-person

second chapter. (There’s also a brief intermission, where you can get up, stretch

your legs, and go to the bathroom.) Ebdus moves on to a Camden College which

is entirely familiar from Less

Than Zero, where he becomes popular by wearing a Kangol cap "long enough

before the Beastie Boys made it widely familiar". He loses touch with his

best friend from Brooklyn, a black kid called Mingus Rude to whom Lethem shows

no mercy at all in terms of plot. No miraculous tickets out of the ghetto for

Rude: instead, we see a textbook descent into drug addiction and worse.

Lethem’s very good, actually, on the mechanisms which reinforce the class and

race divide in America. While Rude never has a chance, Ebdus’s friends from

Camden almost have too many:

"How’s Karen Rothenberg?" I asked, shifting to safer ground.

Euclid goggled. "She quit calling when she came back from Minneapolis

– rehab. Now she’s got this custom hat shop on Ludlow Street. They look

like hemorrhoids, if you ask me. But Dashiell Marks – you remember Dashiell?"

I lied and said I did.

"Dashiell got Karen’s hats listed on the Best Bets page of New York

magazine, so everything’s hunky-dory."

There’s a lot of such good observation where that comes from, although most

of it’s in the first half of the book. The second half spends too many pages

tying up loose ends from the first, as well as helping to explain why we kept

on running across a character called Robert Woolfolk rather more often than

seemed plausible. Turns out Lethem has something in store for him: a baroque

revenge fantasy involving a magic ring which gives its wearer comic-book superpowers.

In general, the first half shows and the second half tells. Confined mostly

to one block in Brooklyn, the childhood portion of the book manages to raise

the largest of themes (race, class, drugs) while keeping its feet on the ground.

Once Ebdus moves to California in Part II, everything is viewed through a distorting

veil of self-knowledge which the third-person narrration of Part I happily avoids.

Both parts, however, suffer from a surfeit of specificity. Most of the time,

this book says a lot more about a very specific part of Brooklyn at a very specific

point in time than it does about America or life more generally. People who

aren’t intimately familiar with Brooklyn’s geometry are going to get hopelessly

confused by the constant refrains about which streets divide which neighborhoods,

while readers who don’t particularly care about the evolution of popular music

from the mid-70s to the early 80s will find their eyes glazing over at the endless

musical references.

This novel was almost designed, you might say, to be read by an overeducated

thirtysomething New York-based book reviewer – such a person has all the

background knowledge and interests necessary to really appreciate it. Had it

been set in Detroit instead, then I daresay the reviews would have been less

numerous and less positive. The Fortress of Solitude doesn’t so much transcend

its setting to make larger points: rather, it relies on that setting to provide

a foundation for the whole project.

Lethem’s still a long way from the Great American Novel, then. But in this

book’s first 292 pages, he might well have written the Great Brooklyn Novel.

And that is no mean feat.

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One Response to New York Stories

  1. Evan says:

    The book rewards slow reading. For me it is much more poetic than any novel I have ever read.

    This is a surprising leap in concept and style from Motherless Brooklyn.

    “Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong. Nothing changed outright. Instead it teetered. You’d pushed futility at PS 38 so long by then you expected the building itself would be embarrassed and quit. The ones who couldn’t read still couldn’t, the teachers were teaching the same thing fot he fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twide and were the size of janitors. The place was a cage for growing, nothing else.”

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